Identify ten books that have meant the most to you over your reading lifetime. These are not necessarily great literature or important or best-selling, just the one’s that have stuck in your mind and won’t let go. Mine are (in no particular order):
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
The Misplaced Legion by Harry Turtledove
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My Sweet Audrina by Virginia Andrews
Jerusalem Fire by R M Meluch
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin (technically this is a series)
The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison
Posession by A S Byatt
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock
There are others that might have made it on to this list: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel; The Player of Games by Iain M Banks; The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (another series where it’s hard to say a single book had an impact on me that the others didn’t); A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter; and The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. They didn’t but it was a hard choice. And there are many, many other books that I’ve loved.
Most of these books (not all) I read when I was a teenager and I have wondered if their hold on me was because I read them at such an emotionally charged time. However I’ve re-read Wuthering Heights and Elric of Melnibone recently, and their power is not rooted in time. It is in the books themselves. I fell in love with them all over again.
This is an exercise from the excellent Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J Madison Davis. The point is to see what the plots of these books might have in common and thus discover what kind of plot you might be good at writing. While I go off to do that, what are the books that are most important to you?
Plot. I have issues with plot. I have a mental block when it comes to getting my characters from one big event to another via smaller events. Perhaps it’s just a confusion, a lack of being able to see the big picture, and the plot really is there and I just can’t see it. If it is there, it won’t be because I did it deliberately.
With this in mind, I picked up The Hard Way by Lee Child. It’s heavy on plot, one of those thrillers that’s all plot and not much else. In actual fact, it’s more of a detective novel with the emphasis on gathering the little clues and interpreting them to fnd out what really happened. The ending is sufficiently explosive with Jack Reacher dispatching the bad guys at a breakneck pace that makes it rather exciting.
Characterisation is on the light side. This is the second Jack Reacher novel I’ve read and I don’t think I know him any better than I did after reading the first one. The rest of the characters are fairly thin. The bad guys are bad and several of the seven-man crew have only names and a couple of physical features to describe them. Reacher hooks up with an ex-FBI agent turned PI, who is a woman in her fifties given an active role and is the love interest, so kudos to Lee Child for a positive, powerful representation of an older woman. Unfortunately, her role is limited to being a foil for Reacher and at the end she is tied up waiting to be rescued.
It is good to see that there isn’t a high body count amongst the female characters, and a theme of strong sisters fighting for their families runs through the book. It is done rather unsubtly but is a nice touch in a genre that is often misogynistic. There is also a drop of social commentary on the privatisation of the defence and security industries. It’s not great literature, but it is fun and is better than several thrillers I’ve read recently.
In non-fiction I turned for help to The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. I got this because it was mentioned by a panelist at alt.fiction 2010 and I have been worrying about plot lately. It has some useful suggestions in it and a couple of things I hadn’t read before, so it was worth it’s purchase. What I didn’t like was the highly gendered use of pronouns when talking about characterisation techniques. At the beginning, Lukeman says he will use he as a generic term, which is lazy at best, but ok. Except that’s not what he does. He sometimes uses he and sometimes uses she. If he had just alternated that would have been ok, but he doesn’t. He only uses she when talking about things that are associated with women in traditional gender stereotypes and never uses she outside of talking about children, attractiveness and domesticity. Grating, and enough to spoil the book, especially as it was written in 2001.
Yesterday I spent the day on the work-in-progress which now, for the first time ever, has an ending. It also has a new front-runner for the title.
I’ve been writing quite a bit of new material and had reached a point where I needed to get organised and put all my stuff in order. As I’ve mentioned before, the fact that I struggle to plan stories bothers me. I’m a planner. I like planning for things and I feel much happier if I know I’m prepared. I enjoy planning so much that sometimes I plan things I’ve no intention of actually doing. But I can’t plan a story. Maybe it comes from a totally different place in my brain. However, writing by the seat of my pants leaves me with a pile of material that is overwhelming and then I don’t know where to go next.
So yesterday I decided to get myself sorted out and that meant googling a method of plotting. How do you do a plot? What does that look like? No idea. The first link I clicked on was the Snowflake Method, which I had heard of before, and came with quite detailed instructions. I spent the day writing several summaries, first generally and then for each of my three main characters. Clearly articulating in this way really helped and in the course of doing it I discovered what the ending of the novel needs to be.
This is no small matter. From the start I’ve had no idea how it would end. There have always been options and at some point I narrowed it down to three possible endings. Naturally, the right and perfect ending that I found today is not one of those three options. I feel like lots of things have slid into place today. As added bonuses I have another idea for the title (I find titles so hard to come up with) and I have a good basis for a query letter when the time comes.
The Snowflake Method has been very helpful. I don’t think I could do it cold. Yesterday I was able to say what my characters wanted, were motivated by, and what got in their way only because I’ve spent so much time writing about them. But this hybrid of planning and seat of the pants writing seems to be working itself out. I only hope the next one doesn’t take as long.